iTunes: Why Apple had to kill its most famous app

Even Apple laughed at the app's failings as it announced its demise

iTunes is shutting down: Apple confirms death of music app at WWDC 2019 event

Apple has finally killed iTunes.

When Apple's latest software update, named Catalina, arrives in September, it will come without the app. In its place will be three separate apps to fulfil most of its functions, and the rest will be hidden within the Mac's settings.

iTunes had helped revolutionise the entire music, TV and tech industries before becoming an example of the things that could go wrong with them.

It was first launched at the beginning of 2001, before the iPod was first revealed. It swiftly helped usher in a variety of different paradigm shifts: from personal music players through to streaming music, via the option to download individual songs over the internet and to watch films just by buying them online.

But nearly 20 years after it arrived, when Apple finally killed off the software, its reputation was so low that even the company could joke about the various problems it had picked up.

At the beginning it had represented the future of listening, and went on to fundamentally alter the industry. But by its end it looked very much like the past, a relic of local libraries and individual downloads in an era of streaming music.

At the time of its death, iTunes was a tool for managing music, video, podcasts, books and apps. It included a store to buy all of those things. It allowed users to stream music and internet radio. And it was the central place for managing devices such as iPods and iPhones, so they could be synchronised.

That long list does not even include the features that dropped away over time. It had once been the home of Ping, for instance – Apple's social network for music, revealed in 2010 and then killed off two years later after failing to achieve traction.

Each of those various functions helped slow down the app as they were added. iTunes had once been praised for its easy and simple way of ripping, managing and listening to music, but over time it became slow to load and confusing to use because of the vast variety of different things it could do.

When it was launched in 2001, iTunes was intended as a way for people to look after their music libraries. It was based on another piece of software, named Soundjam, which Apple bought and then rebranded before pushing it out to the public.

In retrospect, iTunes was clearly launched with the iPod in mind. But at its beginning personal music players were still a rarity, and its primary function was to allow people to manage music on the same device they listened to it on, allowing them to pick through their libraries while they worked, for instance.

But it came into its own once the first iPod was released later that year. Over time, more iPods and more features would arrive and iTunes would become the centre of Apple's "digital hub" strategy, which Steve Jobs described as having the computer at the centre with a range of different satellite devices offering ways of listening or viewing.

With new releases, it picked up increasingly smart ways of managing those libraries. It added support for smart playlists, for instance, which allowed users to automatically generate a list of songs based on automated criteria – users could find all of their tracks that were released in a certain year and were given a certain star rating, for instance.

After the successful release of iTunes for Windows, it was pointed out to Steve Jobs that the fact it was on so many PCs meant that his company had inadvertently become one of the biggest developers for a platform that it routinely mocked. He said that doing so was like "giving a glass of ice water to somebody in hell".

In 2003, just a couple of years after it was first unveiled, an update came that was perhaps more important than the original release: the iTunes Store.

By allowing people to buy songs over the internet, Apple brought the music industry to the internet in the first mainstream way – and the deals and decisions made them would affect the relationship between record labels and tech companies forever. And by letting people buy one song for a flat fee rather than a whole album, Apple helped bring an end to the era of albums and instead hasten in a focus on songs and singles.

Apple would gradually add other network streaming capabilities, too. First came home sharing, which allowed users to share songs across their network; later came features like iTunes Match, which offered an early version of streaming music by shunting people's libraries into the cloud and letting them listen to them from anywhere.

Eventually streaming music would properly arrive in the app, with the launch of Apple Music in 2015. Apple attempted to stitch local and streaming libraries together in a way that largely worked but added extra complexity to the app, and calls for the two to be separated began to grow.

Apple appears to have attempted to do that with its new Music app. Though it will still feature the ability to manage a local library, it appears to have been created with Apple Music in mind, presumably allowing the code to be focused on streaming songs rather than adding that feature on at the end.

But it wasn't ever the music features that led to the most vociferous criticism of iTunes. Rather, it was all the other extra features, such as podcasts and movies – they had originally been added to iTunes because they were all media content, and all needed to be put onto iPods, but over time that began to make less sense and the app started to slow down.

It attempted to cut the bloat by slowly removing features from iTunes. But the the brand appeared to have been permanently sullied, and the association of the app with complicated menus and long loading screens looked unlikely to ever be shaken.

It's that problem among others that has been addressed by the death of iTunes, since Apple has split the three apart. That should allow the apps to run more quickly as well as letting people navigate them more simply.

In the end, iTunes had helped do away with the record store as the only way to buy music, the Walkman as the only way to listen on the move, and shelves as the only way to arrange your records and films. But its last achievement was to make itself defunct, paving the way for streaming as a new kind of listening that it could never quite handle.

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